University of Colorado Boulder students are designing next-generation spacesuit technology.
The CU Technology for Extreme Environments (CUTEE) Club is competing in the NASA SUITS Challenge to design and create an augmented reality system – an interactive, heads-up display – that could present live electronic information to astronauts inside their spacesuit helmets.
Heads Up Technology
It is technology that could be used to show astronauts their spacesuit status, outline procedures for assignments, provide wayfinding, and generally help them more work more efficiently.
“We want to help astronauts be more self-reliant, so they don't need to radio back and forth with ground control as much,” said Chris Hill, a senior in computer science and the team president. “If we want to go to Mars or colonize other planets, radio signals to Earth take longer and longer to transmit, so astronauts have to be able to work on their own.”
NASA is particularly interested in student solutions because they often bring unique perspectives to challenging problems and approach issues differently than career scientists and engineers.
The competition has two phases. The first, completed during fall semester, was a written proposal. In December, NASA announced CU Boulder as one of 21 finalist teams selected to develop prototype systems.
CUTEE is using the Microsoft HoloLens headset platform to design their AR system. In April, they'll travel to Johnson Space Center and present their projects to NASA judges, including actual astronauts.
Thankfully for CUTEE, one of their faculty advisors has plenty of space experience of his own – Jim Voss, a scholar-in-residence in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, is a five-time NASA astronaut with 202 days of space experience under his belt.
“The team has great ideas that will help astronauts accomplish tasks. The most enjoyable part for me is seeing the creative, innovative thinking of our young engineering students,” Voss said.
Part of any NASA college competition is to scout talent – both in new ideas and potential future hires. For SUITS, the agency is extending that to K-12 students. As part of the project, college teams are required to conduct outreach to school districts.
Hill and members of the CUTEE team have held sessions in elementary, middle and high school classrooms across Colorado both in person and via Skype and are co-hosting a Family Engineering Day at CU Boulder on Feb. 23. All of these events aim to show students new technology, like the HoloLens system, and build enthusiasm for STEM careers.
“We want to show kids we’re just normal people and to have them come away not just thinking about NASA, but technology generally,” Hill said. “Tech is changing youth culture. Augmented reality, implantable tech, things like that are the future of how people will see the world.”
Allie Anderson, an assistant professor in Smead Aerospace and team advisor, says they’re particularly focused on outreach beyond the Denver metro.
“We’re engaging in Hayden, Telluride, Ouray – rural communities that don’t have the easy access to museums, planetariums, and science that the Front Range does,” Anderson said. “We want to increase awareness for STEM in places students might not immediately consider it as a career.”
NASA Suits Logo.